Gynecology, Fertility, Abortion, and Childbirth

There are no ambidextrous women (Hippocrates, Aphorisms 7.43).

Men also produce milk, but their flesh is dense, whereas women’s flesh is porous and full of passageways (Aristotle, History of Animals 493a)

The womb is altogether erratic. It delights in fragrant smells, and moves towards them, but it is offended by foul smells and avoids them. A woman’s womb is generally like an animal within an animal (Aretaeus of Cappadocia, On the Causes and Symptoms of Acute Diseases 2.11)

The hair on a man’s chin does not merely give a covering to his cheeks, it also contributes to his fine appearance. For men look more dignified, especially as they get older, if they have a fine covering of hair. … But women have no need of any special covering to ward off the cold, since they generally spend their time at home (Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts 3.899K)

A salamander is a four-footed creature, bigger than a green lizard, that lives in thickets and woodlands. … If a woman wears one attached to her knee, she will not conceive nor have a period (Cyranides 2.36).

Another (method): take a clove of garlic that you have cleaned and peeled, apply it through a pessary into the uterus, and the next day check if the smell of garlic is exhaled from the mouth; if it is exhaled, the woman will conceive; if not, she will not conceive (Hippocrates, On Sterile Women ch. 214).

By giving drugs and making incantations, midwives can bring on birth pangs and make them less painful if they wish. They can also help women having a difficult labor to give birth, and if an abortion seems desirable they perform it (Plato, Theaetetus 149d).

A midwife must not be greedy for money, for fear that she might wickedly procure an abortion for payment (Soranus, Gynecology 1.2)

Italian ladies used to be go about in carriages, a privilege granted, I believe, long, long ago by Evander’s father [i.e. before the Trojan ancestors of the Romans arrived in Italy]. But this honor was taken from them, so all the married women decided not to perpetuate their ungrateful husbands’ family by having children. To avoid giving birth, with unseen blows they ventured to shake the growing burden from their entrails. It is said that the men caught their wives who dared to act so cruelly, but that they nevertheless restored the privilege that had been taken away (Ovid, Fasti 1.619-626).

Eusebia [the wife of Constantius II, who was Roman emperor from AD 337 until 361], who had been infertile all her life, tricked Helena, Constantius’s sister and wife of Julian [who was Roman emperor from AD 361 until 363] into drinking a poison that caused her to abort every time she conceived. Helena had already given birth to a male child, but Eusebia killed him by a trick, bribing the midwife to cut the umbilical cord shorter than she should have just after he was born. Such were the lengths to which she went to prevent the excellent Julian from having any offspring (Ammianus Marcellinus 16.10.18)

The testicles of castrated mules, roasted and then mixed with the juice of the willow tree boiled in water, act as a contraceptive (Aetius of Amida 16.17).

If a woman does not conceive, and you wish to ascertain whether she ever will, wrap her in blankets and fumigate her lower body. If it appears that the smoke passes up through her body to her nose and mouth, you may be sure that she is not infertile (Hippocrates, Aphorisms 5.59).

Men with large penises are not as fertile as men with average-sized penises, for sperm is unproductive if it is cold, and sperm that has too far to travel turns cold (Aristotle, Generation of Animals 718a)

The flesh of certain parts of animals has magical properties in ensuring the conception of male children. If, about the time of conception, a woman eats roasted veal with aristolochia, she will bring forth a male child (Pliny, Natural History 28.254).

When immediately after conception a woman eats cocks’ testes, she becomes pregnant with a male child (Pliny, Natural History 30.123).

The eating of a hare’s womb in one’s food is supposed to effect the conception of males, a result also accomplished by eating the testicles of rabbits (Pliny, Natural History 28.248).

Children are born with resemblances to their parents not only in congenital features but also in acquired characteristics. There have been cases of children born with the outline of a scar where their parents have scars, and there was a child at Chalcedon with an indistinct birthmark showing the same letter with which his father had been branded on the arm (Aristotle On the Generation of Animals 721b). Some people deduced from this that semen is formed in all parts of the father’s body. The same phenomenon was thought to occur in plants: If you scratch letters on a nut and plant it, the tree that grows from it will bear nuts with the same letters (Ps.-Alexander, Problems 5.1).

Why is it that we make the children of those who die of consumption or edema sit with their feet in water till after the corpse has been cremated? It is thought that this prevents the disease from being passed on to them (Plutarch, On the Delaying of Divine Vengeance 558d).

If one wishes a child to be born with black eyes, the mother should eat a shrew during her pregnancy (Pliny, Natural History 30.134).

If childbirth causes a woman’s breasts to swell, they can be restored to normal with a drink of mouse droppings in rain water (Pliny, Natural History 30.124)

Milk is best drawn straight from the nipple, as Euryphon, Herodotus, and Prodicus recommend. Such is their confidence in this method of restoring body weight that they order patients who have wasted away through phthisis to take the woman’s breast in their mouth and suck on the nipple. Since most people cannot bear to do that, it is preferable to transfer the milk from the woman’s breasts to the patient’s stomach while it is still warm [i.e. by having him drink it from a cup]. Woman’s milk is best because it is from the same species. But since most people cannot bear to have woman’s milk given to them as if they were children, you should give them donkey milk as if they were donkeys (Galen, On the Method of Treatment 10.474K)

Word was once brought in my presence to the philosopher Favorinus that the wife of an auditor and disciple of his had been brought to bed a short time before, and that his pupil’s family had been increased by the birth of a son.  “Let us go,” said he, “both to see the child and to congratulate the father.”1  The father was of senatorial rank and of a family of high nobility. We who were present at the time went with Favorinus, attended him to the house to which he was bound, and entered it with him.  Then the philosopher, having embraced and congratulated the father immediately upon entering, sat down. And when he had asked how long the labour had been and how difficult, and had learned that the young woman, overcome with fatigue and wakefulness, was sleeping, he began to talk at greater length and said: “I have no doubt she will suckle her son herself!”  But when the young woman’s mother said to him that she must spare her daughter and provide nurses for the child, in order that to the pains which she had suffered in childbirth they might not be added the wearisome and difficult task of nursing, he said: “I beg you, madam, let her be wholly and entirely the mother of her own child.  For what kind of unnatural, imperfect and half-motherhood is it to bear a child and at once send it away from her? to have nourished in her womb with her own blood something which she could not see, and not to feed with her own milk what she sees, now alive, now human, now calling for a mother’s care?  Or do you too perhaps think,” said he, “that nature gave women nipples as a kind of beauty-spot, not for the purpose of nourishing their children, but as an adornment of their breast?  For it is for that reason (though such a thing is of course far from your thoughts) that many of those unnatural women try to dry up and check that sacred fount of the body, the nourisher of mankind, regardless of the danger of diverting and spoiling the milk, because they think it disfigures the charms of their beauty. In so doing they show the same madness as those who strive by evil devices to cause abortion of the fetus itself which they have conceived, in order that their beauty may not be spoiled by the labour of parturition.  But since it is an act worthy of public detestation and general abhorrence to destroy a human being in its inception, while it is being fashioned and given life and is still in the hands of Dame Nature, how far does it differ from this to deprive a child, already perfect, of the nourishment of its own familiar and kindred blood?  “’But it makes no difference,’ for so they say, ‘provided it be nourished and live, by whose milk that is effected.’  Why then does not he who affirms this, if he is so dull in comprehending natural feeling, think that it also makes no difference in whose body and from whose blood a human being is formed and fashioned?  Is the blood which is now in the breasts not the same that it was in the womb, merely because it has become white from abundant air and width?  Is not wisdom of nature evident also in this, that as soon as the blood, the artificer, has fashioned the whole human body within its secret precautions, when the time for birth comes, it rises into the upper parts, is ready to cherish the first beginnings of life and of light, and supplies the newborn children with the familiar and accustomed food?  Therefore it is believed not without reason that, just as the power and nature of the seed are able to form likenesses of body and mind, so the qualities and properties of the milk have the same effect.   And this is observed not only in human beings, but in beasts also; for if kids are fed on the milk of ewes, and lambs on that of goats, it is a fact that as a rule the wool is harsher in the former and the hair softer in the latter.  In trees too and grain the power and strength of the water and earth which nourish them have more effect in retarding or promoting their growth than have those of the seed itself which is sown; and you often see a strong and flourishing tree, with transplanted to another spot, die from the effect of an inferior soil.  What the mischief, then, is the reason for corrupting the nobility of body and mind of a newly born human being, formed from gifted seeds, by the alien and degenerate nourishment of another’s milk? Especially if she whom you employ to furnish the milk is either a slave or of servile origin and, as usually happens, of a foreign and barbarous nation, if she is dishonest, ugly, unchaste and a wine-bibber; for as a rule anyone who has milk at the time is employed and no distinction made.  “Shall we then allow this child of ours to be infected with some dangerous contagion and to draw a spirit into its mind and body from a body and mind of the worst character? This, by Heaven! is the very reason for what often excites our surprise, that some children of chaste women turn out to be like their parents neither in body nor in mind. Wisely then and skilfully did our Maro make use of these lines of Homer:  “The horseman Peleus never was thy sire, Nor Thetis gave thee birth; but the gray sea Begat thee, and the hard and flinty rocks; So savage is thy mind.”  For he bases his charge, not upon birth alone, as did his model, but on fierce and savage nurture, for his next verse reads: “And fierce Hyrcanian tigers gave thee suck.”  And there is no doubt that in forming character the disposition of the nurse and the quality of the milk play a great part; for the milk, although imbued from the beginning with the material of the father’s seed, forms the infant offspring from the body and mind of the mother as well.

“And in addition to all this, who can neglect or despise this consideration also, that those who desert their offspring, drive them from them, and give them to others to nurse, do sever, or at any rate loosen and relax, that bond and cementing of the mind and of affection with which nature attaches parents to their children?  For when the child is given to another and removed from its mother’s sight, the strength of maternal ardour is gradually and little by little extinguished, every call of impatient anxiety is silenced, and a child which has been given over to another to nurse is almost as completely forgotten as if it had been lost by death.  Moreover, the child’s own feelings of affection, fondness, and intimacy are centred wholly in the one by whom it is nursed, and therefore, just as happens in the case of those who are exposed at birth, it has no feeling for the mother who bore it and no regret for her loss. Therefore, when the foundations of natural affection have been destroyed and removed, however much children thus reared may seem to love their father and mother, that affection is in a great measure not natural but merely courteous and conventional” (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 12.1).